Here at Flipperspiel Wunderland we have had a few Atari pinball machines on the floor and we recently added Middle Earth to our collection. Atari, famous of course for its video games, started making pinball machines in 1976 and stopped after producing only seven different models (not counting prototypes and one-off machines). Each machine was a wide-body game that had more playfield area than other standard pinball machines and gave the Atari games a unique look. The art for these games was largely created by George Opperman, who developed the Atari logo that is still used today. His style of art and the themes of these games will take you back to the Saturday morning cartoons of the late ’70s and will have you craving a bowl of your favorite sugar cereal; it's fun and a bit campy, but works well.
As an operator I tend to look at how well built the machines are and how easy they are to work on. From this perspective the Atari machines are amazing, innovative, and ahead of their time. Middle Earth, for example, has no leaf switches except on the flipper buttons; all other switches are sealed micro-switches that seem to last forever and never need adjustment. The wiring harness is attached to all the switches and coils with spade connectors that are easy to connect and disconnect. This would make changing switches and coils very easy and eliminates the need to solder while on location (with all the parts on hand, you could literally rebuild a flipper in 5 minutes flat!). The circuit boards are also very easy to access because they are located underneath the playfield and not in the backbox (except on Superman and Hercules). This means you do not need to be constantly lifting the playfield and opening and closing the backbox just to do some basic troubleshooting. It also means you do not need to access the pin from the sides to get the backbox open, so you are able to fully work on the machine in a smaller space. The manuals are some of the best I have ever seen and are clearly written, well organized, and very detailed (not to mention they are of better quality in terms of paper and binding).
So with good art, quality, innovative design, and high-tech features, why did Atari fail at pinball? I am sure there are many reasons and since I am not a historian nor do I have any inside information, I cannot say for certain; however I can offer my opinion on how these games play. I find Atari pinball machines to be quite frustrating. They are maddeningly slow (even when raked to a super-steep angle) and the games often seem to get in their own way. The playfields, while large, are sparse and just not very exciting. The audio is pretty much the same across each machine and is only one step above chimes in complexity of sound. Although it’s not always the best indicator of fun, it is worth noting that the average IPDB.org rating is a dismal 5.8/10 for these games. The better of the seven games are Superman and Space Riders, and Superman no doubt gets a boost for its theme. The bottom line here is that no amount of operability, quality, and innovation can make up for mediocre gameplay. Atari made a good effort to enter the market, but compared to early solid-state games put out by Williams, Bally, and even Gottlieb, the Ataris are just not that exciting.
We are living in a time when the popularity of pinball is ramping up again. New manufacturers are entering the market, new technologies are on display at the expos, and pinball is starting to pop up again on nearly every form of media from television and film to portable gaming. Machines are being released with all kinds of new features and technology; let's just hope the manufacturers remember that Atari had some “whiz-bang” features too, but it wasn't enough. It is easy to add novelty and tech to a design...far more challenging to add excitement and fun that keeps players coming back and pumping in dollar after dollar.
Come on down to Flipperspiel Wunderland and give Middle Earth a try. Maybe they couldn’t hold their own against the other machines of the day, but today the Ataris are a unique change from the standard pinball fare, and with such a limited number of Atari pinballs out there, getting to play one of these can be a rare experience.